This clarion call that concludes the Passover seder is not meant to be understood literally. We do not mean, when we sing this line, stomachs full and heads slightly fuzzy from wine, that we intend to celebrate Passover in the modern city of Jerusalem next year. What, then, do we mean? To gain a clearer understanding of the text it is helpful to consider what is recited by Jews who actually live in Jerusalem at the end of their seders: Next year, in a rebuilt Jerusalem! The text is not about place in any physical sense. Instead, it is about time. What we are really saying is ‘next year let us celebrate Passover in the messianic era!’
That phrase – messianic era – comes with a lot of baggage these days. I have never understood messianic references in the liturgy, whether the Haggadah or the siddur, literally either. Instead, those lines speak to me of a time on earth when the world will be a healed place, a place of peace and prosperity for all where, as the prophet Isaiah so famously said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) The question the liturgy – and that line from the Haggadah – poses to me is this: what role do I have to play in bringing that world about? And am I filling that role to the very best of my ability?
As we sit down to our seders this year we will have a strong sense of the world’s imperfection. It has been a difficult stretch leading into Passover, and many of us will find the seder experience strange and discomforting this year. Instead of the large family gatherings we might be used to, instead of sharing the seder meal with friends, we will be in small groups of immediate family, and many of us will celebrate the seder alone. The various connective internet technologies will help, and there are a variety of online ‘virtual’ seders that are accessible this year (to include one through my synagogue, information here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2258621904442883/), but it won’t be the same.
One of my favorite passages in the Haggadah comes at the beginning of the Maggid (the Telling) section. Here is the text in full: “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover. Now we are here. Next year, in the land of Israel! Now we are enslaved. Next year we will be free!” I suspect when we recite this passage next week at the seder table it while have a different resonance for us. Our understanding of, and feeling for, what it means to live in an imperfect world will be stronger than it has been in a long, long time. Meanwhile, our yearning for a better world, a safer, happier, freer, and healthier world, will be both powerful and poignant.
Each line of the text strikes a balance between something that is harsh and painful, and its opposite. Hunger on the one side, sustenance on the other. Need is weighed against plenty. Being ‘here’ – in other words, in this time of difficulty – is balanced by the ideal of Jerusalem and its symbolism of perfection and healing. And perhaps most starkly, slavery is contrasted with freedom. This year, it might be fitting to add some extra lines:
All who are struggling with illness, let them find healing! All who are lonely, may they be cared for and loved! All who are alone, may they once again sit together with their family and friends. All who are afraid, let them find courage! All who falter, may they find strength. Now we are here, next year may be be in Jerusalem. Now we struggle with fear and doubt, next year may we be free!!